‘A Door Half Open To Surprise’: Charles Madge’s Imminences.

‘A Door Half Open To Surprise’: Charles Madge’s Imminences.

Steven Connor

This is an expanded version of a paper given at the conference on Mass Observation as Poetry and Science: Charles Madge and His Contexts held at the University of Sussex, May 12th, 2000. It has appeared in print form in New Formations, 44 (2001): 52-62. It is copyright Steven Connor 2000.

The sense of imminent cataclysm, of tremendous things trembling on the brink of happening, is recurrent in Charles Madge’s poetry of the 1930s and early 1940s. Often, he writes out of a sense of anticipatory pause or lull, tense with waiting, as

time prepares for us his tidal wave
To sweep our harbour clear, and wash the shore
And we surrender to the final pain
[Charles Madge, ‘The Lull’, Of Love, Time and Places: Selected Poems (London: Anvil Press, 1994), p. 135. References hereafter to OLTP.]
The early poems in his first collection, The Disappearing Castle, enact this sense of urgent desire through the use of incipient and unfinished sentences, which strain for completion, like the uncompleted conditionals of ‘On One Condition’, which wind down into a crushed pluperfect without, as it were, ever having been present:

If there were an open way…
A door half open to surprise…If the writing in the road
Had led a stranger’s foot nearer that door and in…
If it had been (OLTP, 15)

The transfiguring change that is awaited, imagined and wooed in these poems is seen against the background of a vision of a sterile England, huddled in conformity, sexual repression and shrivelled purpose: in a version of the modernist anti-modernism of Lawrence, Eliot and Auden. Sometimes, Madge imagines the excited liquefaction of this locked and narrow world, for example in the ‘Man Maniform’ section of his mock-alchemical ‘Hours of the Planets’, in which an evolutionary tide of near-human exile-creatures floods across the Thames:

Life, more persistent than thought, continues to flow
Out of Europe grown gaunt and old
Multiple genera untabulated
Carrying pouches, tufted behind ears,
Splay-footed, hammer-fingered, hooked, humped (OLTP, 29)
Nevertheless, the poem still yearns for some further, more definitive catastrophe:

O reich of riches, urbs of all superb
When will you break your banks (OLTP, 29)
The fourth section of his ‘Instructions’ suggests that, as well as bearing witness to it, poetry might itself can inaugurate and conjoin with the racing spate of the new:

This poem will be you if you will. So let it.
I do not want you to stand still to get it.
You will have it if you go high-speed (OLTP, 127)
Madge wrote in the early 1930s of his desire to be caught up in the irresistible current of the new, which he saw both in the dynamism of America and the even more irresistible dynamism of Russia, which, he wrote in 1936, America shadowed. He represented American writers as ‘straws, caught up in an overwhelming current, even if individually they may not amount to much. Existence in America, and its reflection in print and photography, is a terrific force. The addition of a signature to such material does not add anything but simply takes away the anonymity which is its virtue.’ [Review of American Writers’ Congress, ed Hart. Left Review, 2 (1936) p. 405.] In a fragment of the 1930s, he wrote excitedly ‘we hear cries and noise of steel/And run to join the turning of time’s heroic wheel’ (OLTP, 62).

Modernist experiment is part of the liquefying surprise of the new, of the ‘all that is solid [that] melts into air’ that Madge was fond of quoting in his political writing. Like the Auden whom he admired, and, like so many young writers in the 1930s, imitated, Madge had an ambivalent relation to modernism. He entertained a public suspicion of modernist experiment and private obscurity and proclaimed the historical necessity of socialist realism. Indeed, at times he saw Mass Observation as the self-authorship of the mass in the production of socialist realism. He also shared Auden’s desire for lightness and directness – though not always Auden’s ability to mine the mechanisms of light verse with surprise. And yet he was also capable of conceiving a modernism joined to mass expression, or, as in this rather interestingly idiosyncratic account of Joyce’s late writing presumably in Finnegans Wake, retreating so far into the self as to escape from it back into the world:

A careful study of Joyce reveals that his progress has always been further and further into the recesses of the self, until at last by a process of exhaustion he arrives back at the real and external world. His latest works are not about the self but about the world; however, the language he uses is that of the self, which, smashed into a thousand atoms, begins to recompose itself, in a picture of the world. [Review of Gorki, et. al., Problems of Societ Literature, Left Review, 2 (1936), p. 230.]This suggests that Madge’s version of socialist realism (which, he says, might well take a hundred different forms) could be achievable by a passage through modernist intractability and obscurity. His own mildly, jocosely Joycean experiments in ‘The Hours of the Planets’ perhaps support this idea.

Only occasionally does Madge allow himself to characterise in any detail what the poem ‘Instructions’ calls ‘The new world lying in ambush round the corner of time’ (OLTP, 128). But in this somewhat incautiously specific poem, Madge does evokes the new dispensation, with uncharacteristically raking Whitmanesque fervour:

we hear on all lips a new song in the street all day,
Spreading from house to house without wires. This new song has come to stay.We shall be differently aware, we shall see all things new
Not as a craze or a surprise, but hard, naked, true. (OLTP, 128)
The Madge of poems like this, who looks, not to the exhilaration of emergency, but to the emergence of undeluded lucidity and definitive truth, is paralleled by the sometimes rather grimly exhilarated assertions of belief in historical necessity that appear in his prose writing of the 1930s, in which Madge argued that the turmoil and obscurity of a modernism already withering was just the necessary preliminary to a mass consciousness, and the socialist realism that would express it: ‘Socialist realism, like the socialist revolution, not only is being invented, but it must inevitably be invented. It is the beginning, and only the beginning, of this long-drawn-out historical process that we see in England to-day.’ [Review of Gorki, et. al., Problems of Societ Literature, Left Review, 2 (1936), p. 230.] The sequence of ‘Landscape’ prose-poems in The Disappearing Castlesometimes seem like enactments – if overlaid with the queerly outer-space atmosphere to be found in Humphrey Jennings’s prose poems – of the anonymous, solar precision of the promised new way of seeing. These poems attempt to go beyond the effervescence of mere surprise or rejuvenating alienation, to go beyond the factitious obscurities and disorientations of modernism, which can be seen as part of the structure of neurotic fixation rather than the means of its cure. The ‘Delusions’ sequence in particular repeatedly voices the suspicion of surprise, whether in the false transcendence of ‘the blissful moment of surprise/When the dull bourgeois can become divine’ of ‘Delusions I’, or the traveller who returns home ‘without surprise’ in ‘Delusions VI’.

However, the poems in The Disappearing Castle often join Prufrockian indecision to revolutionary apprehension. Rather than the imminent insurgence of new life from the collapse of the old, the poems elaborately recreate the sense of stubbornly plugged impediment:

I cannot have the round world in my hands.
I cannot join with the ascending light.
…England is fallen. Home is gone. Time stands. (‘In Sua Voluntade’, OLTP, 17)
Madge’s poetry travels between the two perspectives signified in his ‘Philosophic Poem’, of ‘workaday things and a white rising planet’: the world of historical, human time, in which the pain of choice and change is pressing and a natural or elemental time in which change is so generalised as to be numbly self-annulling. In his poetry, Madge attempts to make out apertures of possibility; but he does so against the sense, which is usually more oppressive than it is consoling, of the indifferent unchangingness of nature.

Time, in Madge’s poetry, is always liable to freeze or be compressed into space; into inhuman landscapes, blankly convulsive oceans, moon-irradiated deserts, in which the possibility of change is whispered, cryptic, figural, as in the anonymous dust of the thousands who live ‘in ignorance and pain’ in ‘Delusions IV’, which covers everything except ‘the uncanny sphinx, their hieroglyph’ (OLTP, 51), which is both formed from dust and the form of it.

If the self could be swept up in the dynamic emergency of historical time, it could also be drawn into the reverie of recurrence, or elemental time, imaged in this fragment, as so often in Madge’s writing, in terms of the sea:

Our wills are dissolved as we
Contemplate in reverie the beautiful motion of tunicates
And remember our origin in the ambiguous sea (OLTP, 64)
This fragment parallels and answers another one from the same period, which marks out an emblematic contrast between unselfconscious, submerged existence and the historical being of creatures who have evolved into uprightness, civilisation and a higher form of collective life:

While in the deep cold sea
Simple sponges and gregarious fish
Exert brief lives without a wish.To be a vertebrate is to be a street. (OLTP, 63)
This busy timelessness is enacted in ‘Saeclum’, a poem which uses the coming and going of waves to express the flowing together of before and after, the urgent gatherings and buildings of present time and the unchangingness of past or recollected time, imaged in sun and moon:

Solemn, contrite fusion
Of the centurion tides
Conveying the moons after
The moons of gone tides
Shadows that with water mix
And daily races of the sun
Over the perennial treetops (OLTP, 33)
The poem swirls together three meanings of ‘race’: a Marvellian notion of a race against time figured in the ‘races of the sun’, the historical ‘race’ which is beyond racing and impulsion, both swirled together in the idea of the tide-race:

         The villagers repeat
The proverbs of a former race,
And the ungathered sun and corn
And water belong to the race (OLTP, 33)
Natural and human time are mediated by the figure of Darwin. Madge takes Darwin as the forerunner of both Marx and Freud, and often returns to the idea of evolution to underpin his faith in the historical development of collective self-consciousness. However, in Madge’s poetry, the figure of Darwin is as often used to ask a question of natural existence: to wonder whether natural history can be said to have an itinerary rather than a simple commotion, the ‘commotion born of love’ that humans are said to be in ‘Solar Creation’ (OLTP, 23). The 1937 poem ‘Rebirth’ troublingly reverses the sense of the necessary evolutionary push of time. The poem begins with the question ‘Where are our sons?’ but then represents the apprehension of the necessary emergence of the next generation as a kind of haunting by the future:

Where are our sons? Their tow-coloured hair
Forces its way through the stones and the pavements.
The fibrils of their being are everywhere.It is useless to avoid them, stepping to one side
From the small shadow and the puddle in the rain:
Once found they will not lose you again. (OLTP, 83)
The poem which bears the name of Darwin, written at the end of the War, is much less confident that natural impulses have fitted us out for necessary self-transcendence, and ends carefully stymied between vectorial possibility and the more elementary itches and twitches of impulse:

Have pity on people: within them dwells
Propulsion to an end.
There is a reason for all that running to and fro. (OLTP, 147) 
The Paper and the Periscope

The Darwinist and biologistic cast of so many of Madge’s poems of the 1930s, at a time when so much of his other life was bound up with the exploration of social life, as journalist and then as social investigator, is curious. I want to see it as a contrast between different ways of apprehending time: of the somnolent time of purely material existence, and the emergent historical time of mass society; the time of mere commotion and the time of life-story. Madge wrote in 1937 that his fourteen months as a reporter on the Daily Mirror ‘taught me to understand the queer poetry of the newspaper and the advertisement hoarding, and not to dismiss it simply because it is sensational and vulgar.’ [‘The Press and Social Consciousness’, Left Review, 3 (1937), p. 285.] Mass Observation stood half way between Madge’s different lives as newspaperman and poet. Both Madge’s poetry and his work for Mass Observation allow an enquiry into the part that poetry might have in the temporality of mass self-consciousness – or the movement of temporality into consciousness.

Madge valued the newspaper and the hoarding because they were ‘vehicles for the expression of the unconscious fears and wishes of the mass’. [‘The Press and Social Consciousness’, Left Review, 3 (1937), p. 285.] In his work with Mass Observation, Madge sought, or said that he sought, to bring these mass fears and wishes to consciousness. The use he makes of Freud’s later writings can suggest the necessity of a form of understanding which will dissolve the fixative force of neurotic wishes by giving them expression. His essay ‘Magic and Materialism’, which we may read as a personal manifesto for Mass Observation, proclaims as roundly as anyone might wish that ‘Our common front is the application of materialism to superstition.’ [Magic and Materialism’, Left Review, 3 (1937) [31-5], p. 34.] It is not entirely clear whether the bringing to light of the ‘mass wish’ or the ‘mass fear’ is intended to make them visible and substantial – or to abolish them, as a preparation for the emergence of some less encumbered and distorted form of consciousness. Perhaps a combination of the two: perhaps it is expected that mass feelings, once given form or visibility, will lose their neurotic character, though without disappearing or being superseded altogether.

One can see the signs of this uneasiness in the treatment of some of the material gathered together in the May The Twelfth Mass Observation anthology. For the most part, the editors, Madge and Humphrey Jennings, attempt simply to let observers and their observations speak for themselves. But the most telling parts of the anthology are the footnotes and editorial comments which the editors occasionally permit themselves, such as the anthropological gloss on the contribution from the sceptical Platonist observer in which he describes the application of restorative hair-oil to himself, in what we are told is an identificatory self-anointing. [May The Twelfth: Mass-Observation Day-Surveys 1937 By Over Two Hundred Observers, ed. Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), p. 317.] At other times, the editors point to odd conjunctures and congruities emerging from the material. Perhaps the most arresting of these concerns paper. They first point to the multitude of forms and uses which were found for paper during the Coronation day:

Out of many possible studies of the Coronation crowds, it seems worth while attempting to list the uses to which they put paper. Paper was used in newspapers, notices, tickets, maps, programmes, radio-lists, plates, drinking-cups, for wrapping cigarettes, knives, forks and food, as bunting, flags, house decorations, hats and suits of red, white and blue, for rosettes and streamers, in fireworks, in cardboard periscopes, for sitting on, for sleeping on, to shelter people from the rain, and when thoroughly wet the stuff was thrown about as a kind of bomb. (May The Twelfth, 145)As so often, one wonders quite what the practical point might be of compiling such a list, while marvelling at its weirdly purposive poetry. Perhaps one point about paper is just that it is the visible and tangible form of a nothing, of the very ephemerality and arbitrariness not only the day but of the exercise of recording it. After all, Mass Observation itself was a machine or organism for turning events or experiences into piles (piles and piles) of paper.

The long footnote moves from paper as polymorphous stuff to paper as the carrier of news, with an admiring account of the organisation of runners to carry photographic plates to motor launches on the Thames, which enabled special editions of the evening papers, with pictures of the procession which had arrived at the Abbey at 11.00, to be on sale on the Buckingham Palace Road an hour and twenty minutes later. But this movement, which turns paper into meaning, has already been countermanded by the observation (we are still in Madge and Jennings’s long footnote), that this ‘triumph of organisation which brought out early editions of evening papers was not well rewarded in London itself’. This seems not just to have been because the crowds were getting their news from the radio loudspeakers all along the route, but also, Madge and Jennings suggest, because of a sense of nauseated surfeit at the sheer mass of paper: ‘The stands and pavements were positively drowned in paper…People came to feel that there was so much paper about that you did not want any more.’ (May The Twelfth, 145). So the footnote, which begins with paper as polymorphous substance, and ends with the triumph of paper as expressive medium, actually points to an inverse movement, in which paper begins as expressive and meaningful, and ends up as pure waste, an exhausted, scribbled-over, screwed-up swamping of signal by noise.

This connects with one newspaper-vendor’s interesting pitch, which reads like a bit of Leopold Bloom: ‘ “Coronation Number – Keep from going mad, doing nothing: Read while you wait” ‘ (May The Twelfth, 109). Another, slightly flummoxed footnote refers to Q.D. Leavis on the use of newspapers to stave off boredom, and concludes sniffily that the use of reading as a sedative ‘gives a striking view of our universal education and neurosis’ (May The Twelfth, 109). Madness is held at bay by the newspaper, but because the newspaper is only just this side of the nausea of the discarded, the used up, the already read, it participates in this threat of madness too.

This footnote might have been suggested by the observations recorded in Humphrey Jennings’s own report in particular, rendered as `CM.1′. CM.1 was one of the ‘Mobile Squad of 12 Observers’ who acted as a kind of shadow press, keeping in touch with the Mass-Observation headquarters by phone, taking notes continuously and writing up their accounts in the form of lengthy reports (May The Twelfth, 90). CM.1 records this arresting image from 11.25 a.m. in St. James’s Park:

In the Park behind the stands there is an area of black mud strewn with pieces of torn newspaper. A woman sits alone in the mud surrounded by the paper, her head in her hands. (May The Twelfth, 124)The same observer records a version of the battle between the radio and the newspaper, or significance and insignificance, in terms of what can be made out by the ear and eye, and what is in contrast ground underfoot:

A girl lying on the grass pulls back her hand from under the Guardsmen’s feet just in time. At this moment from the loudspeakers in the Mall the Abbey music begins. Fanfare. Prelude. The choir. Reproduction of music excellent. Drowning the sound of rustling paper under people’s feet. Drowned in turn by the crunch of the Guards’ feet as they return. Waterloo steps are covered with torn newspapers and broken bottles (May The Twelfth, 124).In fact, another diagonal reading that one might imagine of the May the Twelfth survey would focus, as Madge’s own poetry does so often, on height and uprightness, on the endlessly renewed struggle for elevation and the distinct perspective that it gives. New information keeps the possibility of distinctness and uprightness alive; but it is liable at any moment to collapse or reversion to the ground, as in this sequence recorded by CM.2:

Girl sitting on soiled newspaper is reading Daily Mirror. The caption reads ‘Three women wait 25 hours; lead line up for the big parade.’ A man’s folding stool collapses; girls giggle, rather hysterically. (May The Twelfth, 109).The crowds swarming and struggling to obtain the best vantage points are encouraged by the sale of periscopes all along the route. One of the first mentions is at 6.30 in the morning:

A middle-aged woman, a tripper, says ‘We shall have to get one of these ‘ere glasses’ – she holds up her fingers to indicate periscope – ‘It’s the only way now.’A police wireless van takes up position, guarded by 7 policemen – a curious crowd swarms round and submerges it – youths climb on back to get a better view of route – police do not prevent them – hawker cries ‘Genuine periscopes, the only periscope you can see through – see over the top of your car – see your next door neighbour whenever you like.’ A girl in the crowd who has purchased one says ‘The periscopes are quite good, but (with grim humour) there’s a long time to wait yet.’ (May The Twelfth, 109).In a series of fascinating non-sequiturs, the last one stands out. What has elevated vision to do with time? It is as though time had congealed into a soupy substance, the substance of the mass, which only the eminence of the periscope could lift you clear of.

So many of Madge’s own poems of the 1930s image the aspirations to transcendence of man in terms of the painful attainment or maintenance of the vertical (‘To be a vertebrate is to be a street’), against the temptation of relapse, the gravitational pull of the ground or of the sea. ‘Man Under Taurus’ begins with ‘The strain of being upright in the flat world’ endured by ‘Man more than man mechanical skyward genius.’ (OLTP, 19). Periscopes join also with the binocular or stereoscopic vision that is so recurrent a preoccupation of Madge’s poetry.

I have been unable to substantiate in Madge’s own poetry my intuition that here paper becomes the mediating image of mass existence – though I will just mention the final night which falls at the end of ‘Drinking in Bolton’, like a ‘pack of cards’ (OLTP, 108). But the thematic of elevation and drowning is particularly marked in some of Madge’s poetry, especially ‘Through the Periscope’, which imagines a drowned, undersea urban landscape. It is as if the periscope becomes an image for Mass Observation itself, enabling one to look out over the mass and see the stammering King who is perhaps nothing more than the reflection of the crowd’s own previously unremarked being; or the mass itself, achieving a kind of tautological perspective on itself, but in splinters and fragments. (Some members of the crowd brought along shaving mirrors and other improvised reflective devices to make their observations.)

What is the perspective offered by Mass Observation: gawping observation of the mass, eyes out on stalks (as object), or the mass engaged in the act of stalking itself? The periscope, which is as apt to let you see your neighbour’s secrets, or somebody fainting in the crowd a hundred yards away, as the Royal Family passing in state, is a perfect symbol of this flickering between immanence and eminent self-transcendence. The events of May 12th 1937 provide a coincidental mapping of the two temporal axes of Madge’s world: the time of insensate substance, and the time of sensate beings. On the one hand there is the periscope, associated with prospects and perspectives, and with time lengthened out into desire and anticipation; on the other hand, or, rather, underfoot, there is the churning, formless condition of paper, or mire. The commutability of the two dimensions is neatly emblematised by the fact that so many of the periscopes used and discarded on the day were in fact made of cardboard.

But there is another kind of perspective which is increasingly in evidence in Madge’s poetry through the 1930s, which is somewhat at odds with the confident assumptions regarding the necessary emergence of a lucid, mass self-knowledge. For Madge is also increasingly interested in minority, in incipience: the diminutive stirrings and twitchings of awareness and forms of life at the lowest level. Thus, for example, the last section of ‘Visions of Camden Town’, a poem which reflects on the material destruction of the War and the prospects of urban reconstruction, celebrates the emergence, not of a naked, necessary lucidity, in which everything will coincide with itself, and nothing any more be hidden, but of a more fugitive set of ‘awkward and gentle shapes’, which ‘emerge, tentatively free’, like the fragile, disregarded, formless appearances of nature to be found in the city (OLTP, 145). The Hardyesque poem ‘Inscription’ of 1946 ends its meditation on some lines carved in memorial stone with a registration of the humble forms of minor life that they enable: they are ‘Good grooves for lichen spores and chance connections’ (OLTP, 148). Madge, who had been in at the beginning the most insistent in his promises that Mass Observation would be the agency of a new and definitive form of mass consciousness, soon found an opportunity of mitigating his claims. Where, in the inaugural pamphlet for Mass Observation, Tom Harrisson was urging that the movement might itself constitute ‘a new synthesis’ of social thought, Madge characterised his position in the following, much more modest ways:

In the other author’s opinion, Mass-Observation is an instrument for collecting facts, not a means for producing a synthetic philosophy, a super-science, or super-politics. The availability of the facts will liberate certain tendencies in science, art, and politics, because it will add to the social consciousness of the time. Mass-Observation is not a party, a religion, or a philosophy, but an elementary piece of human organisation and adaptation. It is one part of a general deflection of emphasis from individual to collective effort. It is not enough in itself to ensure mass regeneration, and has no pretence to being the salvation of anybody, either spiritually or politically. It is each man’s job to find his salvation as best he can. [Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson Mass-Observation (London: Frederick Muller Ltd, 1937), pp. 47-8].In this passage, the deflection from the individual to the collective has no sooner been stated than it is itself deflected back into a disconsolate individualism. Increasingly, Madge’s poetry will be characterised by its attention to the minor, the peripheral, the surprise of the disaggregated, the repeated imminence of small ways of making a living amid the general life. Tellingly perhaps, one image of this distinctly entomological perspective is almost entirely silent. In ‘Countries of the Dead II’, the only thing that seems to allow for the continued possibility of new life or connections, in a Gothic habitat of decay and decrepitude, is the meandering inscription of the worm traced by the ellipses in each line, the feeble, but insatiable appetite that, living indifferently both on human bodies and on the paper to which they entrust their lives, marks out the minor surprise of persistence rather than the definitive, irreversible, for-good-and-all of transfiguration:

       an inscription                 difficult
no scholar can decipher       forces        unknown
or negatively                  groping
on to the end                               of tactile sensation
restoring         a dead man
life           in that
underworld           overgrown
a little crevice             centipedes find
a way through                                      solitude. (OLTP, 61)